San Antonio Spurs Give L.A. Lakers a Late Tip: Poise Works in Late Spring

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San Antonio Spurs Give L.A. Lakers a Late Tip: Poise Works in Late Spring
Harry How/Getty Images

The Lakers will rue a series of botched box-outs.

They should worry more about the uncontested, top-of-the-key trey Manu Ginobili missed with 12 seconds left. He has bagged that look hundreds of times.

They should agonize over the teardrop Tony Parker short-armed and clanged. The Frenchman built a career on that shot.

The two-time defending champions remain the worthy favorites, and a heart-stopping finish underscored how tough it will prove for any opponent to oust them. The Lakers boast size, a bench with capable producers, a defense that can swing from stuck to sturdy and, when all else fails, Kobe Bryant.

The Spurs showed Thursday night they have something, too. Antonio McDyess put back a Tim Duncan brick just before the buzzer, and San Antonio escaped Staples Center with an 89-88 victory to push its league-best record to 41-8.

Gregg Popovich's squad owes the one-point difference to its sedulity, not a lucky bounce. Dogmatism wins titles. These Lakers know all about that.

When the Spurs edged the Denver Nuggets 112-111 at the Pepsi Center in December, Popovich had every reason to feel lucky. Ginobili banked in a wild circus shot that became the game's last lead change. He then drew a charge on Carmelo Anthony. Even though an offensive foul was the correct call, referees whistle that foul the other way on many nights.

Chauncey Billups was sidelined and the Spurs had needed a Ginobili game-winner to dispatch the Milwaukee Bucks the previous night. Serendipity smiled on San Antonio then. What happened in the final minutes Thursday night was no fluke.

Two suffocating defenses sparred for an advantage. The Spurs forced Lamar Odom to hoist a triple with Richard Jefferson running at him. He drilled it. Jefferson then missed a tough-angled three. The Lakers retained possession.

Pau Gasol noticed his assigned man, McDyess, was watching Bryant's slow dribble instead of checking him. The Spaniard rolled to the rim and earned two free throws. He made both.

What the Spurs did after the ensuing timeout is what separates them from the other Western Conference foes the Lakers might face. Popovich diagrammed a play in the huddle that should have produced the go-ahead basket.

With the Staples Center crowd roaring and the Lakers one stop away from deflating the Spurs for good, Parker lifted a finger and a screen resulted in a shot attempt that has lined a Hall of Fame career. Ginobili's three skipped off the front rim. McDyess gathered the miss and threw it to Parker, who manufactured a similar routine look for himself.

An Odom long-distance heave is preferable to a Gasol layup or a Bryant fadeaway. What could be better for the Spurs than a Parker teardrop or an unmolested Ginobili trey?

When the Lakers grabbed late leads at home against the Thunder in the playoffs, Oklahoma City responded with desperation and inexperience. San Antonio hit LA back Thursday with poise.

The Phoenix Suns demonstrated it in spurts. The Utah Jazz could not even count on it at Energy Solutions Arena. The Spurs can come back to Staples Center at least once in late May and do this all again.

A 9-2 Spurs spurt to close the first half nullified the Lakers' previous 10-1 run. Ginobili knotted the halftime score with a gorgeous finish after a bump and a subsequent freebie.

Yes, the Larry O' Brien trophy must be wrestled from Bryant's cold, ruthless hands. No one in the West can trot out a frontcourt as impressive or as towering as LA's. Yet, the Spurs left the Lakers' arena with a victory, just as they did last March, because a sheer size or talent advantage guarantees nothing.

Hours after the TNT studio crew announced the All-Star reserves, the guard tapped by the coaches and the leading vote getter among fans tussled in a clang fest. Bryant finished 5-of-18. Ginobili ended on a sour 5-of-17 note. Duncan finished 3-of-12. Odom missed 6-of-11 shots.

The final result recalled a June 17 slog the Lakers won 83-79. That victory against the Boston Celtics afforded Jackson his 11th championship as a head coach. A Game 7 that featured five future Hall of Famers—Bryant, Gasol, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen—devolved into a bricklaying contest.

The combined shooting percentage of that star-studded quintet: 35.4. Only Garnett connected at a rate better than 50 percent. He was 8-of-13.

Instead, Ron Artest and Rasheed Wallace became fourth-quarter heroes. In a contest and series that could have concluded with either franchise hanging up another banner, a pair of role players hijacked the stage and the spotlight.

Thursday night, Parker and Gasol scored like All-Stars. Gary Neal, Odom and Steve Blake, though, were just as vital as Ginobili and Bryant. The Lakers will not beat the Spurs in the postseason just because they have one more tall guy. Or two.

A 6'9", supposedly undersized center, after all, tipped in the winning basket. The Spurs' grimy approach should also quell any notion that Popovich values defense less because his offense scores at a record rate.

The Lakers' point totals in their previous three defeats against the Spurs—85, 81, 82—suggest defense still matters in San Antonio. Thursday, the reigning champs managed just 88 points, eight less than they tallied versus the Celtics in a Sunday meltdown. They shot 42 percent.

LA can steal a playoff game at the AT&T Center, but San Antonio's ability to do the same at Staples means more. The Thunder will become the Lakers' deadliest challengers when it can bring its modest success at Oklahoma City Arena on the road. Close doesn't count for the Thunder.

Winning on the Lakers' hardwood is an unfamiliar feeling for Kevin Durant. He has never done it.

Several West opponents can handle LA once or twice at home in May. The Spurs rank as the lone team in the conference with the pedigree and aplomb to give Jack Nicholson a lasting scowl.

Both squads have a long road to travel to make an anticipated and extended late-spring matchup a reality. In the second of four regular season jousts, the Spurs delivered a conspicuous message.

Gasol swished two free throws to give the Lakers an 88-87 lead with 22 ticks remaining. Two missed opportunities and two offensive rebounds later, the Spurs retorted and absconded Staples Center with a victory.

They can do it again in May or June.

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